There are four basic reasons why people become abusers.
- They are born with a deficiency in their brain
- They do not get taught to value other people as much as they value themselves
- They copy the behaviour of an abusive parent or caregiver
- They decide it’s a dog-eat-dog world and they are sick of being eaten.
It is thought that some people are born with a deficiency in their brain. The deficiency makes it impossible for them to experience empathy. Empathy is the ability to imagine how someone else feels and it is empathy that causes us to try and avoid doing bad things to other people.
People who are born without the ability to empathise with other people are called psychopaths. There is not, at this point, any treatment for psychopathy.
You will find psychopaths in all levels of society but a huge proportion of them end up at either the top or bottom of society. Our prisons contain many but plenty of others find their way into politics or high paid positions in the business world. Others make millions scamming people.
The psychopath cannot see the world through any eyes but their own. This means they are convinced the world, and everything in it, is there for their use and enjoyment.
An example of psychopathic behaviour is a man I knew who persuaded his parents to hand over everything they owned to invest in a business venture of his. When the venture failed his parents lost everything and had to move to public housing. The stress affected their health and his father ended up with a heart condition. This meant he was unable to work and they had to live on a pension. Their son visited them regularly and “borrowed” their pension money so he could go drinking and socialising. This often left them unable to buy groceries and their health deteriorated further.
One day he visited them to borrow money and all they had was twenty dollars. They were ill and needed the money to get scripts filled as the father was almost out of his heart medication. Their son was so enraged by their refusal to give him the twenty dollars that he beat them up. The noise of the attack annoyed the neighbours so the police were called and he was charged. The psychologist who was asked to evaluate him reported that he was not the least bit sorry about anything he had done and was, in fact, convinced his parents had failed him by not giving him the twenty dollars when he asked for it because he “needed it” more than them.
There are two warning signs that a child may be a psychopath – cruelty to animals and fire-setting.
If your child enjoys pulling the wings off insects or hurting the family pets don’t ignore it! If they also seem to have a fascination with fire and you have caught them setting fire to things you may have a budding psychopath on your hands.
Children will be cruel to animals through ignorance of the pain they are inflicting so it is important to educate them about how the animal feels when they do these things. It is the child who cannot seem to grasp, or care, about how they are making others feel who may be a psychopath.
If you have a child who seems to enjoy inflicting pain, even after you have tried to teach them empathy, it is imperative that you take action! It is possible the child is a budding psychopath but this is also a symptom of severe abuse. Abused children often act out their feelings about the abuse by passing on the pain.
Children will also be interested in fire until they learn about its dangers and the damage it can do. It is the child who does not grow out, or who seems unable to be trained out of, their fascination with fire and who does not seem to care about the harm it can do to other people or to other people’s possessions who may be a budding psychopath.
We know psychopaths are born but we do not know if a normal child can turn into a psychopath through NOT being taught to feel empathy for other living things. A lot of people are failing to teach their children to think about how others might feel when they do things and we may be seeing an increase in psychopathic behaviour because of that.
Ignorant abusers grow up in families where they are not taught to value other people as much as they value themselves. Spend an hour or two watching small children play and you will see human nature in action.
Small children want what they want, when they want it, and to hell with the needs of the other children. Small children will bite, hit, snatch, bully, scream and cry to get their own way. If they are not taught to think about the needs of others, to wait for what they want, to share and compromise they will not change.
Such children will grow up to be adults who want what they want, when they want it, and to hell with the needs or wants of others. People with that attitude towards other people behave in abusive ways simply because they have never learned not to.
To train empathy into your child you need to be alert to opportunities. In the past people thought you could train a child not to bite, for example, by biting them to show them how it feels.
This won’t work all that effectively. Even if it teaches the child not to bite it also teaches them to believe the “ends justify the means”. When you hurt your child to try and teach it not to hurt others you simply teach it that it is OK to abuse other people as long as you have a “good” reason for doing it. For many people just WANTING to do something is a “good” enough reason to do it!
The best way to train empathy into a child is to wait until unpleasant things happen to them.
When another child bites them, for example, comfort them then take the opportunity to ask them how they feel about the other child and how it felt to be bitten. Tell them you are proud of them for not making other children feel as bad as they are now feeling if they don’t bite other children. If they do bite others you can use the experience to explain to them that this is how others feel about them when they do these things.
Stay alert for opportunities to repeat the lesson as the only way children learn is through repetition. They do not have the same memory as adults. If they were able to remember like we do they would never learn to walk because they would not be able to forget the pain of falling!
People who have grown up to be ignorant abusers will often respond well to a similar training strategy. Educating them about the costs of their behaviour can motivate them to change their ways.
Trained abusers tend to come from abusive families. They learn to behave abusively because they had an abusive parent or caregiver. The child who grows up watching one parent abuse another has two role-models. They will usually choose one of them. They will become like one or the other of their parents. They will become either the one who abuses or the one who is abused.
For these people the world is made up of two camps – abusers and victims and they think if they behave differently they will be moving into the opposite camp. These people learn to appreciate and enjoy the rewards of their victim or abuser position so it is very hard to motivate them to change.
It is not considered politically correct to say that victims enjoy their position but, in some ways, they might do. They enjoy the “honeymoon” phase of the abuse cycle where the abuser tries desperately to make amends to get their forgiveness. Quite often they feel comfortable in an abusive relationship. Not happy, nobody is happy about being abused, but they can often feel a certain level of comfort because it is all so familiar to them as it is the world they grew up in.
An example of this is a woman who grew up in a home where her father beat her mother. She married a man who beat her and raised two sons who abuse her too. She, like ALL targets of abuse do in the end, reached a point where the rewards of staying in an abusive relationship were outweighed by the costs. Among those costs was the increasingly abusive behaviour of her sons – one abuser she could handle but three became too much to bear. All three abusers became, as always happens, more abusive over time and she began to fear for her life. After a particularly bad beating she left both the hospital and her husband. To this day her sons continue to abuse her!
One day she met a man who was not abusive. He said please and thank you and opened doors for her. He asked her which restaurant she preferred and said sorry whenever he did something she objected to. She told me he made her feel dreadfully uncomfortable and she had to stop seeing him because she couldn’t handle the discomfort.
A person who is not permitted to have an opinion gets distressed when their opinion is asked for. A person who is used to the cycle of abuse gets distressed when the cycle is not there because they become, subconsciously, fearful of how bad the abuse is going to be when it finally begins. A person who is used to the intense, frantic, over the top desperation of a repentant abuser’s efforts to prove their love can sometimes feel unloved by people who are not trying to buy forgiveness from them.
The cynical abuser decides it’s a dog-eat-dog world and they are sick of being the dog who gets eaten. Many times such people have been burned by women like the one I mentioned above. She broke the nice man’s heart and ended up with yet another man who abused her. Her rejected lover was left thinking, as many men do, that women like abuse.
Cynical abusers can, and will, change back to the nice people they used to be if the person they are with communicates their distress over the abuse and they care about that person. Sadly, however, the cynical abuser often takes up with someone they don’t really care all that much about. It makes it easier to be abusive if love doesn’t get in the way.
This has been a very simple and basic overview of how people come to be abusive and, as always, there is more to it than this but this covers the main points I wanted to make. The important thing to remember is that the more understanding you are of an abuser the less their abusive behaviour will cost them.
The less their behaviour costs them the less motivation they will have to stop being abusive.